Sacramento County Probation Department receives national award for improvement

By Kim Minugh 

Published: October 20, 2013  

Seven years after a lawsuit lambasted the facility as overcrowded and having an abusive culture, the Sacramento County Youth Detention Facility has won national recognition.

The county’s Probation Department, which operates the facility, recently was announced as a winner of the 2013 Barbara Allen-Hagen Award for its efforts to improve the experience and treatment of youth offenders.  

The award is presented by the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving youth correctional programs. Russ Jennings, an expert consultant there, described Sacramento County in a news release as a “national model in its use of data to continuously improve outcomes for the youths in its facility.”  

“Certainly, this award validates the important work we’ve done over the last several years to change the culture at our detention center,” said probation Chief Lee Seale. “Seven years ago, we weren’t in the same position that we are today, and we’re pleased to be where we are today.”  

About 30 agencies from across the country competed for one award in each of three categories: long-term correction facilities; short-term detention centers, like Sacramento’s; and residential programs. About 90 agencies – all of whom use the Performance-based Standards program – were eligible to apply.  

Seale, who took the helm in May, said the department began using the “PbS” model in 2008, two years after a lawsuit by the Prison Law Office decried conditions at juvenile hall.  

Agencies that use PbS can upload data, monitor progress and compare themselves to other agencies. When problems are detected – for example, when an agency’s data is out of sync with the norm – a PbS coach helps agencies identify best practices and emulate more successful programs. PbS helped Sacramento officials focus more acutely on the use of isolation or room confinement as punishment for offenders, one of the concerns raised by the Prison Law Office. 

The partnership costs the department about $12,000 a year, Seale said. 

Using PbS, he said, “we were able to seize on it and make the most of it and pull ourselves out of what was really a difficult chapter.”  

The Prison Law Office’s suit led to a 2009 consent decree forcing changes at the facility. In December, the law office was so satisfied with the changes that ensued, attorneys declined to extend the consent decree.  

“They had transformed the juvenile hall from a place of pain and suffering into a place that provides rehabilitation and treatment to juvenile offenders,” director Don Specter told The Bee earlier this year.  

As of Wednesday, juvenile hall housed 204 youth offenders, most of whom are awaiting proceedings in juvenile or adult court. The average length of stay at the Rosemont facility is about 25 days, Seale said. The hall’s annual budget is $41.5 million, with anywhere from 30 to 50 staff members on-site each day.  

Among the issues raised in the lawsuit was the use of isolation or room confinement to punish teens. In a period ending in 2012, the average duration of such confinement dropped from nearly 31 hours – a figure four times higher than cited by other agencies – to seven, according to probation statistics.

“The issue of room confinement was a major challenge for our department,” officials wrote in the application for the Barbara Allen-Hagen Award. “Staff used room confinement as a sanction, discipline and a break. The more kids were in their rooms, the easier the day was.”  

Incidents involving force by officers, as well as injuries to officers, also have dropped, according to the department.  

In the award application, officials wrote that they worked hard to erode the “punitive culture” that existed at the facility and encouraged officers to, when appropriate, “take a more counselor-like approach to the situation.”  

The Barbara Allen-Hagen Award was created to honor a woman who supported the creation of youth correctional facilities that were safe and conducive to learning and where staff “treat all youths coming into the facility as if the next child to be admitted was one of their own,” the application states.  

That principle has been embraced in Sacramento County, Seale said.  

“The kids who come into the detention center really do have to be treated like our own kids, and that means providing them whatever opportunities we can while they’re in our custody,” he said. “We want the experience at the detention center to be one where kids come out of there better prepared to succeed and to stay out of trouble.”